How it feels to be a woman Kathakali artiste - an art dominated by men

Sixty-three-year-old Kottarakkara Bhadra, a veteran woman Kathakali artiste, still regrets missing out on her son's childhood because her passion for Kathakali saw her performing day and night.

Thirty-nine-year-old Ranjini K.P. recalls the rigorous training classes that she sought and endured by choice since she was five, just to "vent my passion for the art and continue my father's legacy".

Although Kathakali is a pre-dominantly male bastion, over decades there have been some exceptional women artistes who have braved the odds to essay male and female roles in this theatrical dance form. However, no reference literature on this dance form has any mention of women. P. Geetha's book, 'Kaliyammamar' (Rainbow Books, 2011), is an exception, as she has not only spoken to over 100 women dancers but has described in detail the life struggles of Chavara Parukutty, a Dalit and the only woman who has completed 50 years as a Kathakali dancer.

"The blatant omission [of women from Kathakali literature] is patriarchy at its severe best," says Geetha, who is an associate professor in Malayalam Literature at the Government Sanskrit College, Pattambi, in Kerala's Palakkad district.

By its very physical nature, Kathakali is not considered suitable for women. Performances are always held at night and could go on into the early morning. Also, in an entourage of 10 to 12 male artistes, which includes singers and musicians, the presence of a woman performer is often a liability. "Remember also that you are not allowed to perform during menstruation," reveals Bhadra.

Of course, a woman artiste had to face all this only if she manages to get training in the dance form. Kathakali requires more than eight to 10 years of full-time professional training, which is generally not offered to women. The prestigious government-run Kerala Kalamandalam in Cheruthuruthi does not admit women students.

"The only option left for girls is to attend private classes by former Kathakali artistes and veteran performers," says Ranjini, who also works as a corporate legal consultant. "Kathakali's specialty is that you do not have to repeat the same role over and over again," reveals Ranjini, "but you have to improve with every performance." That's because a Kathakali artiste is judged by his or her experience - not by the number of shows staged.

Unfortunately, despite gaining experience, women artistes do not really receive any audience appreciation. "Kathakali," says Geetha, "like all traditional art forms gets its thrill - or 'a surge in spirit' - from a captivated audience." But women rarely experience that thrill.

As Haripriya Namboodiri, 38, a Kathakali artiste, puts it, "It is only in Kerala that the audiences judge you harshly just because you are a woman." While in most cases audiences are not told that it's actually a woman performing underneath all the dramatic make-up and costume, once they do come to know this, they get transformed from being connoisseurs to voyeurs in a snap..

Apart from living with the stigma of being an 'aattakari' (dancer), these women risk being in close proximity with men whether it is the make-up man or the many unknown male helpers that literally clothe them. They have to wait for hours on end with a full bladder and an empty stomach. Often, they also have to fend off crowds backstage, as people want to "get a little peep" into the 'aniyara', or green room.

On top of all this women performers face hostility from fellow male artistes. According to Bhadra, the main reason for this is that women's entry into the field is seen as a loss of income for the men.

Although Ranjini and Namboodiri insist that this is not the case today and that there is enough work to go around for everyone, they do admit that there is a huge disparity in remuneration. Where a second-level male artiste gets Rs 4,000 a night, a woman artiste - even through she may have done the maximum number of performances in that particular role - can only hope to get Rs 1,000. While a male artiste can have 150 performances a year, a woman is lucky if she can get four in a month.

Today, young women performers pursue this dance form only out of passion. "But it is a God-given skill," she says, "and you can't suppress it for long."

Geetha hopes that women artistes in the future will bring in their own mannerisms and style to the dance instead of imitating the men.

After all, if Chavara Parukutty had not risked unemployment and artistic isolation, her story would not have made it to the pages of 'Kaliyammamar'.

Will Kerala's budding women Kathakali dancers be able to raise their artistic voice? Like they say, nice women never made history.

(Women's Feature Service)

Keywords: Kathakali